When adjusting to a new position, it is not unusual to overanalyze one’s work or get caught up with trying to impress superiors.
That’s exactly how Vanderbilt junior Chase Garnham felt as he moved to middle linebacker prior to this season. An outside linebacker the last two years, Garnham shifted inside to fill the void left when three-time All-SEC standout Chris Marve graduated.
All eyes were on Garnham. Suddenly he was in charge of making the defensive calls along with keeping tabs on the offensive linemen and running backs in order to get a head start on snuffing out runs. With more responsibility came more thinking from Garnham. As a result, he slowed down.
Now, with nine games under his belt, he has thrown caution to the wind and given chase.
“As the season started I think I was making too much about my assignment, trying to be perfect,” Garnham said. “As the season has gone on I’ve kind of loosened up and played faster, harder. I think that has helped me.”
A carefree approach has boosted Garnham and the Commodores (5-3, 3-3 Southeastern Conference), who can clinch bowl eligibility for the second straight year with a win at Ole Miss (5-3, 2-3) on Saturday (6 p.m., ESPNU).
The 6-foot-3, 234-pounder from Fairhope, Ala., has been unleashed recently and is tied for fifth in the conference with five sacks. He picked up three a couple weeks ago against Auburn. He also collected nine tackles against the Tigers, adding to a season-total of 54, which is tied for second-most on the team. His presence and maturation aids a rush defense showing improvement the last three games.
“From the beginning of the year to now, he is much more comfortable with his role,” coach James Franklin said. “He is playing a lot faster. He is not thinking as much. He is controlling the calls and the strength calls and Chase can run. So when he is blitzing he is going. I think that has really helped us.”
The linebacker corps was an unknown prior to the season and became even more of a concern when starter Tristan Strong left the team for personal reasons three weeks before the season opener. The inexperience showed early as Vanderbilt allowed 100-yard rushers in three of the first four games.
Then Florida torched the Commodores for 326 rushing yards, including a school-record 177 by quarterback Jeff Driskel, who scored three touchdowns.
Over the next three games, Vanderbilt clamped down and allowed a total of 258 rushing yards. Last weekend Kentucky averaged just 3.2 yards on 31 carries to finish with 101 yards.
“A lot of the stuff early on was our run responsibilities and I think the statistics have been a little skewed because we’ve played such run-heavy teams,” Garnham said. “Maybe that’s helped our pass defense numbers and made our run defense numbers a little worse. But I think when you look at our total defense numbers that is more indicative of how successful we’ve been on defense this year.”
Indeed, Vanderbilt’s total defense (316.2 yards per game) ranks fifth in the SEC and 19th in the country.
But there is no getting around the obvious weakness at containing running quarterbacks. Along with Driskel, South Carolina’s Connor Shaw burned Vanderbilt for 92 rushing yards and Northwestern’s Kain Colter also ripped off a couple big runs.
Garnham says the responsibility of being aware of the quarterback varies depending on the call. Sometimes that duty falls on a defensive lineman. At other times, it is the linebacker’s responsibility and even the safety will track the quarterback.
They’ll get another test this weekend with Ole Miss sophomore quarterback Bo Wallace. The Giles County product is second on the team with 265 rushing yards. His ability to roll out and scramble could cause problems for the Commodores. But Garnham’s not sweating it — or over-thinking.
“We’ve worked hard on that,” Garnham said. “We were hurt by it a little bit. Hopefully we’ve shored that up a little bit and we’ll be more successful this weekend. I think we have a better grasp on that.”